The Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns (1985)
NYRB Classics (2018)
177 pp

On December 20, 1812 the Brothers Grimm published Children’s and Household Tales, famously known nowadays as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We are familiar with many of these tales, and we are also aware that today many of the sharp edges have been sanded down, even if their darkness — such as all forms of abuse, abandonment, and cannibalism, usually involving children — remains in the fabric. Surely one of the most brutal of these tales is tale number 47, “The Juniper Tree,” where the wicked stepmother murders her stepson, props his body up for his sister, the little Marlinchen, to discover, and then cooks him in a stew she feeds the father. Good night! I have to think it is the darkest of them all. I have to hope it is, for surely, surely that book doesn’t venture into anything darker than this? Would that even be possible? The story, miraculously, has a happy ending, though it lingers not because of its hope and reconciliation — they seem false; it lingers because of the stepmother who allows her mind to be overtaken by the The Evil One. That’s the part, terrible as it is, that rings true.

In her late 70s, already with a strange and dark body of work under her belt, Barbara Comyns turned to this tale to write a version of the tale in suburban England that is startlingly realistic while still otherworldly and hypnotic.

When I started reading The Juniper Tree I knew of the Brothers Grimm tale and refreshed myself on the gruesome details, but I didn’t know how closely Comyns followed it (and I won’t say here). As the pieces started falling together, I grew more and more terrified of what was to come.

And the pieces show up immediately. Here is how the original tale begins:

Long ago, at least two thousand years, there was a rich man who had a beautiful and pious wife, and they loved each other dearly. However, they had no children, though they wished very much to have some, and the woman prayed for them day and night, but they didn’t get any, and they didn’t get any.

In front of their house there was a courtyard where there stood a juniper tree. One day the woman was standing beneath it, peeling herself an apple, and while she was thus peeling the apple, she cut her finger, and the blood fell into the snow.

“Oh,” said the woman. She sighed heavily, looked at the blood before her, and was most unhappy. “If only I had a child as red as blood and white as snow.” And as she said that, she became quite contented, and felt sure that it was going to happen.

Comyns begins similarly, but from the perspective of her first-person narrator, Bella Winter.

Quite soon after I left Richmond station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I cam to a road that appeared to be deserted. Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still. As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving. She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow.

Clearly the woman who cut her hand is the ill-fated woman from the original tale. This is underscored a few paragraphs later when we see this woman also longs to have a child. Bella comes closer to her and they strike up a conversation while watching children play:

A small boy came running up to us and slipped his bare hand into her warm mittened one for a moment as if to collect its warmth, then ran after his friends. I asked her if he was her son, he had the same colouring, but she said, “No, I like to watch the children playing but have none of my own,” and the happiness left her face and I knew I’d said something wrong.

But who is this Bella Winter, this new narrator, who, much like the young narrator in Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, speaks with such clarity while appearing to ramble in uncertainty? Bella is our eyes and holds our sympathy. We soon learn that she is in this town to get a job, but the proprietress turns her away because Bella has a large scar on her face. Aside from being unsightly and inciting unfair biases against her, this scar represents tragedy to Bella. She received it when the man she was living with wrecked the car they were driving. She is no longer with the man.

While building our sympathy, though, Comyns also makes us cringe. Bella, we learn, has a daughter who is named Marline. When Bella strikes up a friendship with the woman who cut herself in the first scene, the woman calls Marline Marlinchen. The woman becomes pregnant . . . Thus Comyns leads us down a pleasant forest path that darkens so slowly we barely notice.

Marlinchen ran ahead of us to examine the daffodils which were just coming into flower and we’d shout “No, no!” every time her hand went out to pick one — well, no exactly pick, she pulled their heads off, looking at us and laughing as she did it.

What an unsettling experience, but these ties to the original tale are not what make The Juniper Tree the phenomenal book it is. As fun as those little easter eggs are, as much as they pulled me through the story, gasping to know where Comyns was going to take me, here the lingering power is Bella’s tale, which Comyns fashions herself. Bella comes off as an honest narrator, all the more so because of her lack of guile. She tells us much without meaning to. Just look at these two sentences, laid out when Bella is telling us about the aftermath of the auto accident that left her face scarred. The man who wrecked the car, who is not a good man, seems genuinely sorry for what he’s done and cares for Bella:

I think he really did love me then. He took me back to the flat and loved me for at least a month.

I think those two sentences are amazing. They show her matter-of-fact approach to life. They’re downright prosaic. And yet. In most books that final “loved me for at least a month” would come off as bitter and sarcastic. Comyns has shown us, though, that Bella, however unreliable and naive she may be, is sincere. The reader recognizes how feeble that phrase is, but Bella does not seem to. Consequently, I feel deep sympathy for her and deep worry. These two sentences how little it might take to please Bella and how dangerous it is that Bella can be so easily pleased. They show her counting the days she felt loved, pleased with them, as meager as they might be. They show that she, for a time, may have been glad of her misfortune because it gave her a season where she felt love, or something like it.

Almost from the get-go we know that Bella is the stepmother, but that doesn’t prevent a sense of connection and care. And the calm, pragmatic, accepting voice of Bella carries us through the strange and sad things to come.

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